Storytelling for Sustainability
Last Updated on July 7, 2021
I’m sure at some point in your journey to become more sustainable you’ve experienced resistance from people in your life. Maybe you have a parent, or family member that’s totally uninterested in living sustainably. Perhaps you struggle to show them why this lifestyle is important. Maybe you can’t seem to convince them to give up on bad habits that are bad for the planet.
In this blog post, I’ll share a technique I find helpful in gently influencing behaviour change in people who may not yet understand the importance of living sustainably. This technique utilizes storytelling – and can be applied towards all sorts of behaviour change!
As humans, we connect with stories. From a young age, our parents read to us and tell us stories. These stories often incorporate lessons that we can take and use in our lives. They can teach us about the importance of sharing, or telling the truth.
Of course, stories aren’t just for children! Indeed, storytelling can be useful for sharing information and lessons to people of all ages. How many times have you had a conversation with someone about something that went wrong in their life, then made a mental note of it so you don’t repeat the mistake? This is also a form of storytelling. It’s one that passes on lessons that we can learn from and apply in our lives. With this in mind, we can also apply stories to sustainability teaching. But how does it work?
Storytelling & Sustainability
It helps if you start by considering your audience. What behaviour are you trying to change? How are you trying to influence your audience? What is something they care about, or connect too? What are their values, and how can you tie them into your story? These are all great questions to think about when crafting your story.
Once you have the basic framework, you can start adding details. It can help if your story is true, or is based on a true situation. You can always embellish some details to add interest and make your story more engaging. Be sure to incorporate an engaging “hook” near the beginning of your story to ensure you capture your audience’s interest early on!
With the details of your story organized, you’re ready to tell your story! However, you want to make sure it can be worked into conversation naturally. No one wants to feel like they are being lectured. So it’s important to consider your timing and tell your story at the right time. So, with that said, let me give you an example of a story I tell all the time in my work to encourage behaviour change!
Once Upon a Time…
OK, so that’s not usually how I start my stories! As an environmental educator, part of my job includes introducing people to ambassador animals. When I introduce a new animal, I always share the story of why that animal lives in captivity, and weave a sustainability message into the story so my guests will walk away from their experience with the tools to make more sustainable choices in the future.
One of my favourite stories to tell is stories about animals that are victims of vehicle collisions. This allows for me to naturally incorporate an anti-littering message, which I’ll get into in a moment. For example, take Trill the Eastern Screech Owl.
Here’s how I like to tell Trill’s story:
I like to start by drawing my audience’s attention to Trill’s missing eye. This usually sparks some intrigue in my audience which captures their attention. It’s important to have a “hook” when storytelling, to captivate the audience.
“You may have noticed that Trill only has one eye. This is because of an injury he acquired while hunting in the wild.”
Next I start to explain the situation, slowly answering the questions people may be forming in their minds. I also try to use inclusive language, even when talking about negative environmental impacts, to help my audience not feel isolated and without pointing fingers.
“Trill was found by a roadside, unable to fly. We suspect he was hunting by the side of the road and was struck by a car while flying across the road. You might be thinking that a roadside is an odd place for an owl to hunt, but the truth is many birds of prey like owls like to hunt by the side of the road.
The reason for that is because of all the garbage that accumulates by roadsides. If I were to hand you a garbage bag and ask you to fill it with litter while walking along a highway I’m sure you could fill that bag in under an hour!
The trouble is, when we eat snacks in a car we sometimes toss things out our car window. Things like chip bags, or take out containers are common things to see in roadsides ditches. We do this without thinking much about what happens next, because to us those items aren’t very interesting.
Mice and rats however are very interested in checking out our trash in hopes of finding treats to nibble on. Of course, if mice and rats are attracted to roadsides to find food, then that’s going to eventually attract predators like hawks and owls. This means it is fairly common for birds of prey to become injured or die from collision accidents.”
Reaching The End
After explaining the situation, I try to switch the mood to make the story end in an uplifting way. This shift in mood helps to inspire my audience to walk away from the encounter with a desire to change their behaviours. I also like to offer multiple solutions, and provide opportunities for the audience to contribute their own ideas for solutions. This makes the encounter feel less like a lecture and more like a conversation.
“It’s certainly very sad to think about owls getting hit by cars. However, I think there is a very simple solution to this problem.”
At this point, I like to let people think up some solutions on their own terms. When people think up ideas on their own they tend to be more interested in following through with them. Usually people will come to the conclusion that they should stop littering. This includes littering organic materials like apple cores!
Even though those items will break down, they still contribute to this problem. A better solution is to compost organic materials. I’ll also prompt people to pick up litter in their neighbourhoods, and share this story with other people! Education is key to getting even more people interested in protecting the environment!✊
Now Tell Your Own Story!
I hope this post inspires you to incorporate storytelling in your sustainability journey! Find a cause that matters to you. Then, weave that issue into a compelling story that you can use to help inspire others to live more sustainably!